It’s quiet and painless, and it’s not dark like everyone believes. Rean is holding him and the pain ebbs away until all he can do is smile and look into Rean’s eyes. He loves this boy; it’s odd how death reduces everything to its simplest form. It doesn’t matter that they were on opposite sides, that Crow was a terrorist, or that Rean is Osborne’s son (he’s not sure how he knows that, but it’s likely the result of his lingering in the liminal space between alive and dead). All that matters is love, and Crow is so full of it right now that it kills him all over again to see Rean cry.
If I could do it all again, I’d make you happy, he thinks. Please, Goddess. Just let me make him happy.
When he comes to, he’s sitting in an uncomfortable chair, swinging legs that don’t touch the floor. Somehow, he knows his parents have just died - a car wreck. His grandfather’s been spirited away to complete paperwork or something, and Crow wanders aimlessly around the ICU when he suddenly hears a voice cut through the defeating roar of white shock in his head:
“Hey, are you okay?
His head whips sharply in the direction of the voice because it’s Rean’s voice; he’d know any variation of it, anywhere.
Rean is looking pale in his hospital bed, hooked up to dozens of machines and tubes and Crow feels a little sick at the sight, but he walks over to him anyway.
“What happened to you?” Crow asks.
“My heart,” he explains, placing a fist on his chest, a gesture so familiar that makes Crow want to smile. “It’s damaged. I had an accident when I was really little. What about you? Are you visiting someone here?”
“My parents,” Crow replies absently. “They… died. A little while ago.”
Rean’s face is instant shock and compassion. “I’m so sorry! Oh my God… I-I’m so, so sorry! Is there, can I,” he pauses to choose his words, “do you need a hug?”
Crow just nods, and Rean embraces him.
They become friends afterward. They exchange letters and talk on the phone, and despite the distance, they see each other often. Crow studies his ass off to get accepted to the same university as Rean, and their freshman year is fantastic until Crow gets a call about his grandfather’s death.
Rean helps him through it, though. They both make the trek to Jurai, and Rean helps Crow with planning the service and sorting through his grandfather’s house, figuring out what to keep and what to toss.
He breaks down what feels like every five minutes, but Rean is always there, ready to hold Crow when he needs it.
They sleep in the same bed, and neither of them mentions it.
Rean invites Crow to stay with his family for the summer, and with nowhere else to go, Crow accepts.
He gets a job at the local café. Rean tries it, but being on his feet all day leaves him short of breath and Crow sends him home and orders him to check in with his doctor.
After that, Rean visits a specialist in Heimdallr and another one in Crossbell, but Crow assumes it’s to make up for not being able to go during the school year. When Rean finally comes home after his medical mystery tour, as Crow has taken to calling it, Crow immediately senses his hypothesis was wrong.
“So… I need a transplant. Not right now, but,” he inhales, “the doctor says it’s only going to get worse from here, so it’s better to get me on the list.”
Crow is so stunned and afraid that he actually flinches.
“It’ll be okay,” Rean insists, though Crow sees through his smile; he always has, in every lifetime, “I’ll get a new heart. The doctor says I’m a good candidate.”
Crow just hugs him close and tries not to tremble.
Rean’s condition gradually worsens, and by the time graduation rolls around, he’s in the hospital.
It feels selfish to burden Rean with Crow’s feelings, so Crow just focuses on being there.
Watching Rean deteriorate is slow torture. Days turn into months. They celebrate Thanksgiving with hospital food, and Christmas in the ICU. He’s in his own room by New Years, and he sets an alarm on his phone for three minutes to midnight so he doesn’t sleep through it.
They watch the ball drop on TV and toast with ginger ale.
“Hey, Crow,” Rean starts tiredly. “I’ve never had anyone to kiss on New Year’s. I was just thinking that this might be the last chance I have.”
Crow’s insides clench and shudder like a gong, but he’s quick to hide his panic.
“You’ll have plenty of New Year’s. But you may as well get some practice in.”
He leans in and presses his lips to Rean’s. It’s soft and light and it takes everything Crow has to keep it that way. It’s too short, and Rean looks too happy when they part.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Crow says, squeezing Rean’s hand.
They don’t talk about the kiss, but not because they don’t want to. Around 2:43 in the afternoon, Rean’s heart stops, and the doctors narrowly manage to get it started again.
Crow doesn’t know how he gets to the hospital, but he’s greeted by Rean’s red-eyed, grieving family, and Crow is no better.
“He’s in and out of consciousness,” Mrs. Schwarzer says. “If there’s something you need to say to him, you should do it soon.”
The look in her eyes tells him she knows exactly what he wants to say. He just nods and sits by Rean’s side, and his family politely leaves for dinner, giving him some time alone.
Crow sits there, watching Rean’s ravaged body struggle to pump blood and he understands what he needs to do. He takes Rean’s hand and kisses his forehead, leans close to his ear, and says, “I’m sorry.”
He’s gone by the time the Schwarzers return.
He gazes out the window, staring across the street at the glowing windows of the hospital he knows so well. It was such a maze when Rean was first admitted, but now, he’s able to direct confused or crying visitors to wherever they need to be. His fingers brush his lips.
I love you, he thinks to himself, please don’t hate me.
He takes a deep breath. Lifts the pistol from the desk. He looks it over, flips the safety off, then dials emergency.
“I’m in the hotel across the street from St. Ursula’s Medical Center Hospital. Room 303.”
“Sir, what’s –”
“There’s a patient there, Rean Schwarzer. He needs a heart. We’re a match. You’re going to give him mine.”
“W-What?! That’s – wait, don’t do anything rash! Let’s talk about this, please –”
She sounds strangely like Towa.
“I have no next-of-kin. No family. Rean does. Please. Make sure he gets it. If I do this right, they’ll be able to keep me alive long enough for the transplant.”
He hangs up the phone. The sirens are already screaming below. He follows the ambulance with his eyes until it parks right outside the building. He waits. Hears footsteps down the hall. Good.
He presses the barrel of the pistol to his head, exhales, and pulls the trigger.
When he wakes up, he’s gasping for air and a soft voice is asking if he’s all right.
His mother is there, wide-eyed and concerned, easing him back to sleep with a lullaby.
His life is normal. His grandfather passes first this time, when Crow is about six, and to take his mind off things, his parents decide a trip to Ymir would be nice.
The town is lovely and Crow meets a young Elise, who kind of attaches herself to him. His parents meet the Schwarzers, and over the course of their vacation, become fast friends. Over the next two years, the Schwarzers visit Jurai and his family returns to Ymir regularly. The last time Crow’s family visits the snowy mountain village together, the driver of an orbal truck falls asleep at the wheel on the drive home and smashes into them head-on.
The Schwarzers pick Crow up from the hospital a few hours later, and take formal custody of him after two weeks.
In this world, Kasia lived, so Osborne never became the Chancellor, and the first time Crow meets Rean, he’s 16 at a celebration of the Schwarzer’s fifteen-year anniversary.
Rean is beautiful and confident in a way he never was before; without crippling self-doubt and insecurities to hold him back, he shines more radiant than ever. His hair is long and falls past his shoulders, though he wears it in a ponytail.
“Hi, I’m Crow Schwarzer,” he says, bowing as he’s been taught by Teo.
“Rean Osborne,” he replies, returning the gesture.
“Nice to meet you.”
“Hey, wanna see a trick?”
“Let me borrow 50 mira.”
Rean raises an eyebrow and debates with himself for a moment, then shrugs and hands over the coin from his pocket.
Crow takes it, tosses it into the air, catches it, drops it into his pocket, then holds his closed fists out to Rean.
“What do you say we make it interesting?” Crow suggests.
“What do you have in mind?”
“You guess wrong, you have to dance with me.”
“And if I guess right?”
“What do you want?” he asks, just a little sparkle of slyness in his eyes that seems to amuse Rean.
“I get to dance with your sister.”
Crow flinches and Rean laughs; it’s clear he’s trying to tease Crow, and his satisfied smile tells Crow he succeeded.
“Fine, sure. Pick a hand.”
Rean deliberates for close to a minute. “Left.”
Crow opens his empty palm and grins. “Too bad! Now, Mr. Osborne,” he tries not to cringe and holds out his hand, “I believe you owe me a dance.”
Rean takes it with a knowing smile and Crow whisks him away onto the dance floor. They move naturally, gracefully; it’s astonishing how well they complement each other. It’s like they’re the only two people in the room. The lights play in Rean’s eyes and a lock of hair falls out of his ponytail, and Crow tucks it behind his ear with the tenderness of a lover. The gesture feels intimate, but Rean doesn’t pull away or flinch. They dance until Teo and Lucia are thanking everyone for coming, wishing their friends and family a good night and safe trip home. Then, Rean leans in next to Crow’s ear.
“I knew it was in your breast pocket,” he says, slipping his fingers into said pocket and emerging with the coin. He grins triumphantly as he holds it beside his face and winks, and Crow wants to take Rean upstairs and find out what other ways he could make the boy smile, but Osborne’s voice cuts into his thoughts.
“Rean,” he says, a little amused, “it’s time to go. We have an early train tomorrow.”
Rean bows and thanks Crow for the dance, and Crow does the same.
He stands there, watching Rean walk away, and suddenly, Elise’s teasing voice says, “You’ve got it bad .”
“Shut up, you!”
She giggles and proceeds to taunt him the whole night. And through breakfast the next day. And for the remaining week. It turns out that Elise, under Crow’s influence, has grown into quite a different person than the ones he’s known so far.
They don’t see each other again until they enroll at Thors. Crow deliberately waits a year so he can be Rean’s classmate, and it pays off because they’re both placed in Class VII.
Osborne isn’t the Chancellor in this world; Olaf Craig is. Neither Crow nor Rean is an Awakener; this time, it’s Elliot in the Ashen Knight and his sister Fiona in Ordine. Elliot doesn’t stand a chance against her, in much the same way Rean did against Crow, but in this world, Fiona doesn’t know Class VII and doesn’t care about keeping them alive.
Crow realizes this as she bears down on them after Valimar has taken Elliot off somewhere to recover his mana. He shoves Rean out of the way, and then darkness.
Crow’s grandfather isn’t a mayor in another world; he’s a distant man always off on a cruise somewhere, so Crow basically raises himself. He’s fifteen when they get a transfer student, Rean Schwarzer.
This Rean frightens him. He’s dark and sad, the shadows are heavy under his eyes and his hair is bleached white. He wears mostly black and keeps to himself, so naturally, Crow takes the initiative to make introductions.
“Hey there, new kid,” he tries congenially.
Rean scowls. “Do I look like I want company?”
“Nope!" Crow responds with deliberate cheer. "You’d have to be a total moron to miss the signals you’re giving off.”
“What does that say about you, then?”
Crow just winks. “I’m either very dumb, very brave, or you’re just very cute.”
Rean sighs. “What do you want?”
“Just thought you could use a friend. If not a friend, somebody who can get usually get you the answers to the test ahead-of-time, for the right price.”
Rean’s jaw drops and Crow laughs.
“Shoulda seen your face, man. Nah, I can’t get the answer key. But, I can tell you that Ms. Valestein is drunk at least 70-percent of the time, so if you need an extension or something, check how she smells first.”
“I’ll keep it in mind.”
Crow is about to give up, figures he’ll try his luck another day, when he notices a certain band’s sticker on Rean’s water bottle.
“You like Ouroboros?” he asks.
“... You’ve heard of them?”
“Of course!” Crow replies like it’s the most obvious thing in the world. “Their sound is something else, totally unique! Campanella really knows how to entertain the crowd. And Vita’s voice… you know, I hear she’s actually a trained opera singer.”
“I’ve heard that, too," Rean replies. "But I’ve never seen them live.”
“I’ll get you a ticket next time they come around, if you want. You just gotta promise to come with me.”
“You’re relentless, aren’t you?”
“Is that a yes?”
“Only if you pay for my ticket.”
Crow sighs. “Fine.”
Rean looks curious. “Why do you care so much?”
“I like people who appreciate good music.”
Rean comes to school with a black eye on Monday.
“Anyone give you a hard time?” Crow asks.
“Just leave it alone, okay? There’s nothing you can do about it.”
“So it’s your parents?”
Rean looks away and clenches his teeth.
“I pretty much live alone, you know," Crow explains. 'If you don’t wanna go home, you can stay with me. No questions or anything.”
Rean doesn’t take the offer right away. When he finally does, his right arm is hanging at an unnatural angle, his left eye is swollen shut, and his right cheek is bruised. His lip is split and his forehead probably needs stitches.
The first thing Crow takes care of is the dislocated shoulder. Rean screams in a way Crow’s never heard before, and he feels like the scum of the Earth for being the one to cause it.
True to form, Rean apologizes for bleeding on Crow’s sheets.
“I don’t care,” Crow says, cleaning Rean’s bloody lip as gently as he can. His forehead is still bleeding. “I think you need stitches,” he explains, gesturing at the cut in question.
“No. No doctors. He’ll kill me if anyone finds out.”
Rean stares at the sheets and gives a small nod.
Crow hated Osborne enough to kill him in his original life; now, he wants to rip him apart piece by piece.
He sighs. “I can stitch it up for you. But it’s gonna hurt like a bitch, just so you know.”
Rean lifts his shirt carefully, displaying an ugly purple-black bruise. “I can take it.”
“You shouldn’t have to.”
To his credit, Rean hardly flinches as Crow sews the wound shut. He grabs whatever he has in the freezer and orders Rean to ice his bruises. He knows over-the-counter painkillers won’t do much, but they’ll take the edge off, so he has Rean take those, too.
“Pizza okay for dinner?”
He never asks Rean to talk about it. They sit on the couch and watch B and C-list horror films, then Crow invites Rean to play videogames. Rean’s never really played before; his dad doesn’t approve (shocker). Rean’s too sore for even button-mashing, so they opt for an obscure turn-based combat game. Crow handles the controls and they both collaborate on strategy. Rean actually smiles.
He comes over regularly after that. They get closer, and Crow thinks maybe if Rean keeps his distance from Osborne, he’ll be able to earn a scholarship and get the fuck away from him for good without any further beatings.
This time, he’s sure Rean’s arm and at least two ribs are broken. His face is a mess and Crow can’t keep himself from crying. He wants to hug the other boy, offer him comfort, but he’s terrified to make things worse.
“Rean… we have to go to the hospital. I can’t fix broken bones. I wish I could, I really do, but… we don’t have a choice. If you don’t heal right, you’ll be fucked up the rest of your life.”
“Don’t you think I’ve tried calling the police before?!” Rean shouts, sobbing hard. “He’s got connections! They never do anything and it just makes him madder!”
“... Could we go to another town?”
He shakes his head. “She’ll show up. She always does. As soon as she hears about him getting in trouble, she’ll be there.”
“Who? Who is this person, Rean?”
He winces as he wipes his swollen cheeks. “Chief Claire. And Captain Lechter,” Rean laughs bitterly, “even Rufus fucking Albarea.”
“The mayor ? How the fuck does your dad know the mayor?”
“He’s Senator Osborne. We don’t have the same last name. He left me with my uncle after mom died, and they gave me their last name to keep me safe. Then, dad got into politics and I guess it was good for his image to have a son. He’s close to President Eugent. So I’m pretty fucked.”
“Let’s take care of one thing at a time, okay?”
The doctors set Rean’s arm and bandage his ribs; the representative from Child Services, Aurelia LeGuin, listens to his story. Crow holds his hand. They promise Osborne won’t be allowed near him until the investigation is conducted, and ask if he has a place to stay while it is.
Crow can’t take him in legally, so they call his aunt and uncle. They arrive, but not before Osborne himself does, with Chief Claire behind him.
Aurelia is firm and doesn’t cave to the pressure from Claire. She checks in on Crow and Rean, tells them everything’s all right, and assures them that no one will be bothering either of them again. Rean is so relieved that he cries. He holds Crow in spite of the pain (or maybe they gave him some really good painkillers) and thanks him over and over.
The story hits the tabloids within a few days. He feels bad for Rean, but Crow can’t just sit by and let him suffer at this man’s hands. If he can’t kill Osborne literally, Crow will settle for killing his career. There’s no way anyone would know Crow leaked the story. Nial and Dorothy would die before they gave up a source.
He’s wrong again.
Not about Nial and Dorothy, though. He got complacent. He didn’t understand how far Claire would go to protect Osborne, didn’t realize she’d betray her own integrity if he asked her to, so when a drunk, furious Giliath Osborne shows up at his door, Crow knows he fucked up.
There’s no time to scream. The man’s fist collides with his jaw so swiftly that the blow knocks him off his feet. He chokes as Osborne delivers a brutal kick to Crow’s ribs.
He tries to gasp for air. He feels something loose in his mouth and spits out two teeth. Looks like he’d been holding himself back with Rean.
“You thought you could beat me at my own game, did you, Armbrust?” He chuckles darkly, slurring a bit. “You don’t get to tell me how to discipline my worthless son!”
Crow curls himself into a ball, fearing another blow, and Osborne laughs, grabbing his hair and yanking him up before he strikes him in the face.
“You think a little scandal like this is enough to ruin me?”
Crow expects more abuse, and is surprised by the sounds of Osborne rummaging through his home and breaking glass. When he’s able to push himself up, he’s confused. The place looks like it’s been ransacked.
“Too bad you live in such an awful part of town. Rufus really ought to do something about the crime rate. Too many burglaries.”
There’s a telltale click Crow knows well, and his eyes grow wide when he realizes what’s going on.
He tries to get up, but he can’t.
Osborne shoots him in the chest. What karma.
It’s the usual script: parents die when he’s young and his grandfather takes him in afterward. It never gets easier when the old man dies, though, and for some reason, it hits him particularly hard in this timeline. Maybe because he hasn’t met Rean yet, or because he’s starting to feel like he’s trapped and doomed to fail.
So, when Duke Cayenne (in this universe, he’s not actually a Duke; he’s a drug dealer who calls himself a Duke) approaches him and offers a job running one of his corners in exchange for a shitty one-bedroom, roach-infested apartment, he takes it.
Giliath Osborne is the town’s mayor, who’s decided to renew the War on Drugs, and Crow becomes a soldier of a different kind.
Time passes. Crow stays loyal and moves up the ranks from lowly corner boy to trusted lieutenant. One of the youngest ever to gain Cayenne’s complete and total trust.
He’s smoking a cigarette outside Micht’s shitty convenience store when the door swings open and a cop steps out.
The cigarette hangs limply on his lip, then falls to the ground. Crow doesn’t even notice.
Rean is beautiful here, too. He’s filled out considerably, and he’s taller than he was in school (though Crow’s still got him beat there). He’s always looked good in a uniform, but this one brings out the blue tint of his black hair especially nicely. Or maybe that’s Crow’s fucked-up, Rean-starved brain.
Rean sees him gawking, then looks him over.
“You know, I could fine you for littering,” he says with a smile that tells Crow he has no intention of doing so as he nods toward the forgotten cigarette.
Crow raises an eyebrow, trying to play it cool. “How much would it run me?”
“How about this? Instead of spending $200 on the ticket, I’ll spend it taking you to dinner.”
Rean laughs, blushing adorably. “I-I was just gonna ask you for your number…”
Crow grins, takes his phone from his pocket, and exchanges contact information.
“Oh… um, just so you know, you really shouldn’t smoke.”
“Why?" Crow snorts. "Because it’ll kill me?”
“No. Because I don’t like the taste.”
He shoots Crow a wink before he disappears into his patrol car.
Crow tosses the almost-brand-new pack of cigarettes into the garbage without a second thought.
He takes Rean somewhere nice but not too nice; he wants to impress him but doesn’t want to raise suspicion or make the other man feel like he’s leaping into something too fast.
Rean’s wearing a sharp, dark blue-gray button-down, the top two open to reveal the skin beneath the hollow of his throat; black straight-leg pants that hug his hips just right; black shoes somewhere between casual and professional; and a wide, charming smile as earnest as ever.
Crow’s own attire isn’t much different: dark red dress shirt, his hair styled without the bandanna (“artfully tousled”, he likes to call it), charcoal pants, and black shoes, all of which he purchased precisely for this occasion.
The evening goes well. He tells Rean he used to work in sales but has since been transferred to management and is looking to get into real estate, which isn’t a total lie. Cayenne may want to be king of the streets, but Crow’s ready to go legit. There are some condos going up on the Lamare waterfront and if Crow can buy in, it’ll be his ticket out. If he’s careful and plays things close to the vest, he can do it without ever having to tell Rean the truth about his past.
It hasn’t worked yet, but hey, what’s one more try?
He learns that Rean’s adopted and has a sister who’s assistant and romantic partner to Hollywood Sweetheart Alfin Arnor. They don’t see each other much anymore, but she did come to see him graduate from the police academy. He’s one of the youngest to get accepted; usually, they won’t take you fresh out of high school, but through some stroke of luck (or Mayor Osborne’s influence, Crow thinks) he made the cut.
It’s a nice date. They never run out of things to say, despite how little Crow initially thought they’d have in common. After dinner, they walk around the shops and Crow buys them both the best damn ice cream Rean’s ever had at a little booth that he never would have thought to stop at. They sit on a bench together and watch the water.
“Next time you have a day off, we should go fishing,” Crow suggests.
“Are you serious?" Rean asks as if he's worried Crow might be teasing "You like fishing?”
“Yeah. You don’t?”
“No, I mean, yes, I mean – I love fishing! I’m just surprised you do.”
“I’m full of surprises,” he winks.
Rean blushes and God, it’s adorable.
He walks Rean home and kisses him goodnight; it’s chaste and gentle and Rean’s such a fucking tease it hurts.
“Can I see you again?” he asks.
“I’d have to bring you into the station if you didn’t.”
“For what? Littering?”
“Hit and run.”
Crow laughs. “All right, Officer Schwarzer. I’ll call you.”
He calls. They talk and text, and make plans to see each other the following weekend. Rean complains about having to work the night shift on Wednesday, so Crow shows up at the station with coffee around 2am. Rean kisses him right in front of his partner (Machias) and the station secretary.
This turns out to be a fatal error, because one of the newer kids on Cayenne’s crew snitches about seeing Crow pay a visit to the police station.
When he gets home Thursday night, Cayenne, S, V, and G are waiting inside his apartment.
Crow just hopes Rean’s not the one to find his body when they’re done with him.
In another timeline, the Salt Pale Disaster happens in Jurai instead of North Ambria, and his family flees to Ymir, wanting a change of scenery. He and Rean grow up together, building snowmen, playing hide-and-seek, constructing forts, and getting into the sort of mischief kids are wont to do.
Crow is 17 and Rean is 16 when they decide to visit Roer. They meet Alisa, and Crow’s heart breaks when he notices that Rean is absolutely smitten.
Of course, she agrees and they start dating, and when they both turn 20, Rean proposes.
Crow hugs Rean and tells him he’s thrilled. He gives a speech at the wedding that’s heartfelt, funny, and deeply moving. After the reception, Rean pulls Crow into a long hug and rambles on about how lucky he is to have Crow, how he hopes Crow finds someone as wonderful as Alisa, how he wants to live next door to each other and raise their kids together and become in-laws. Crow hugs him back and laughs and sends him off to his bride.
They’re happy together, and two years later, Altina is born.
Just after Altina’s third birthday, Rean gets hit by a bus.
This is the first time Rean’s died before him, and Crow doesn’t know what to do. He’s a mess, but Alisa is worse, and he tries to be there for her, but she just pushes him away. She pushes Altina away, too, and Crow watches as Alisa becomes her mother.
When Alisa starts talking about hiring a nanny, Crow offers to take Altina in. He doesn’t know shit about raising kids, but he’s got a few lifetimes worth of being one, so how bad could he do?
He gets Altina through school, cheers her on at swim meets and doesn’t miss a single one, does everything to give her the life Rean would have wanted.
She meets a girl named Juna and falls in love.
Crow walks her down the aisle and cries because she’s beautiful, because Rean isn’t there, because he remembers that long hug and misses the feeling of Rean’s arms and the way he smells and his face and fucking everything about him.
“...You loved Dad, didn’t you, Pop?” Altina asks.
Crow wouldn’t let her call him dad. That was for Rean.
“He was my best friend.”
“No,” she says, “you loved him the way I love Juna.”
“Yeah. I still do.”
“He’s gone, Pop. You need to move on. He’d want you to. You deserve to be happy.”
Crow exhales, “I am. I have you and Junie.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Give your old man a hug, Teeny.”
She does. He sniffles into her hair but he’s regained his composure by the time he withdraws.
“What are you doing getting all melancholy with your father on your wedding night, eh? Go help Junie out of her dress.”
“Pop, that’s gross!”
“It’s got a lot of buttons!” he insists, playing innocent.
Juna and Altina adopt a whirlwind of a girl named Millium, and Crow spends the rest of his life spoiling his granddaughter. He visits Rean’s grave every Saturday, telling him about how Millium finger-painted the walls or got her first haircut, how Rean’s absence feels like a missing limb. How he can’t wait to see him again.
Another time, in a world that’s not Zemuria, Class VII meets in something called pre-school. Rean mediates a fight between Jusis and Machias over who gets to play with the stegosaurus, and stops Millium from eating too many crayons. Elliot is practically attached to the xylophone and Gaius is always picking flowers and digging around in the dirt. Emma thinks she’s a witch and brings in her cat named Celine for show-and-tell. It’s nap time all the time for Fie. Laura is polite and kind, and always playing with a toy sword. Angelica introduces everyone to the game “kiss-chase” during recess, and Towa is good at everything. Alisa and George are always taking things apart and putting them back together. Miss Sara, their teacher, takes frequent sips from her water bottle, which is silver and rectangular, and not like any water bottle the kids have ever seen.
Crow likes card games and magic tricks, and shows off his favorites to Rean on the first day, hoping to impress him.
Rean is delighted and declares Crow his best friend. They always partner up and play together, and one afternoon when Rean can’t sleep during naptime, he asks Crow to cuddle him. Crow welcomes the other boy into his sleeping bag, and after that, Rean decides to make Crow his pillow on a daily basis. Crow laughs and doesn’t mind because Rean is soft and warm and fits perfectly when he’s curled up and tucked under Crow’s chin.
Everything goes well until Crow is sleeping over Rean’s house, and it catches fire sometime in the middle of the night. It moves fast and mercilessly, and the door to Rean’s room is so hot, they can’t turn the knob. They’re coughing and crying and trying to find a way out the second-floor room, but they’re both dizzy and it’s hard to move. The drop from the window is terrifying and Rean’s too scared to jump.
With his last ounce of strength, Crow shoves Rean out the window before he passes out.
Crow is always just on the cusp of breaking down. Each time he wakes up in a new life, he’s increasingly certain he wishes he hadn’t woken up at all. Meeting Rean each time becomes excruciating, and he starts to wonder if maybe he’s in hell. He’s lived more lives than he can bear to remember, and none of them turn out right. Even if he gets to make Rean happy for a while, it’s never the way he wants, and never for long enough. In fact, in one timeline when they finally did get together, the feeling is mutual, and they’re old enough for a serious relationship, they’re accosted by a violent homophobe who cracks Crow’s skull open and kills him instantly.
Maybe they were doomed from the start.
He cries out in the darkness, screaming like a banshee and begging whoever’s doing this to make it stop.
He tries to kill himself, and of course, he fails. It can’t be that easy. The attempt lands him a stint at the hospital, where he does his best to lay low.
Machias is there for his explosive anger. His cousin’s death has scarred him worse in this world. Emma has hallucinations and an imaginary cat named Celine. Jusis is antisocial. He’s spoken maybe two words since Crow’s been there. Fie was abandoned when the mafia boss raising her died. She saw it happen and hasn’t spoken since. Sara is an alcoholic fresh off her latest bender. Elliot is a brilliant musician with crippling anxiety. Laura has bulimia. Gaius hears voices. Alisa has a phobia of physical contact.
Crow is lying on his bed, reading The Metamorphosis for irony, when the door opens and Nurse Towa says, “Crow, meet your new roommate. This is Rean Schwarzer.”
Rean is quiet and drawn and doesn’t look up. He’s got telltale bandages on his wrists and he looks too thin.
Crow drops his book and instantly, he’s congenial.
“Hey there, roomie! Can I help with anything?”
Rean shakes his head no and drops himself onto his bed.
“Crow, you’ll need to help him get comfortable here, all right?”
Crow doesn’t ask what he’s in for. He maintains polite distance, makes sure Rean doesn’t miss mealtime or activities, and keeps an eye on him. After a couple of days, he does the coin trick and Rean actually cracks a smile.
He teaches Rean to play Blade during recreational time, and the other boy enjoys the game. They play it daily, and when they’re not in the mood, it’s chess.
Slowly, Rean starts brightening when Crow’s around.
Crow, who has never shared anything in group therapy, decides it might help to make himself a little vulnerable.
“I… I’ve been here a while,” he says. “Sometimes, I feel like my life is totally meaningless, you know? I fail at everything. I’m just repeating the same shit in different ways and sometimes… sometimes I just want it to end. Every time I get close to the one thing I want, it turns out to be impossible. But… I guess I’m feeling better lately. I have… there’s someone in my life now, and… I think I want to get better.”
Rean wordlessly takes his hand.
He doesn’t talk about what Crow said in group, but there’s a softness to him now. His eyes are a little brighter, he smiles now and then, and Crow even manages to make him laugh.
It’s a Thursday when the doctors try out a new cocktail on Rean. Crow has gotten more popular with the group now that he’s socializing, but he’s always watching out for his roommate, so when the aforementioned boy disappears, it doesn’t take long for Crow to notice.
He shoves the door to their room open, and sure enough, he’s there, sobbing and clawing at his arms and legs.
Luckily, the stitches have already dissolved or been removed, so the wounds aren’t going to be fatal, but Crow is in crisis mode anyway. He grabs Rean’s wrists and pins him on his bed in a way that would be intimate if he wasn’t trying to stop the boy from killing himself.
Rean thrashes and kicks (or tries to), strains against Crow’s grip until he goes slack and sobs himself hoarse.
Crow never quite relaxes, but does release Rean’s wrists. He rolls onto his side and pulls Rean into a hug. The other boy accepts, clinging to him as he cries and asks why he’s not dead, why it hurts so much, why he’s alive and mother is not.
“It hurts because you’re alive,” Crow tells him. “Life is pain. It sucks. But life is also pretty great sometimes. Or, it can be. Mine’s a lot better with you in it.”
“Don’t lie to me.”
“I’ll never lie to you, Rean,” Crow has made that mistake once. Never again. “You know how long I’ve been here?”
Rean shook his head no.
“Neither do I. It’s been years of hell. All I wanted was to die, and then you came. I talked in group the other day. I’ve never done that before. I never cared about getting better; I’ve got nowhere to go if I ever get out. But now… maybe.”
“You hardly know me.”
I’ve lived millions of lives with you. I’ve seen you as a toddler who played with me on the beach and I’ve seen you as a grown man. I’ve saved you and I’ve lost you, and I’ve loved you every single time. Don’t you dare say I don’t know you.
Rean’s face changes and he brushes Crow’s hair out of his face. “Why… do I feel like you see right through me? Why do I feel like I’ve known you forever? Why does my chest hurt when you look at me like that?”
“Maybe I knew you in a past life.” It’s meant as a joke, but it doesn’t come out that way.
“Is this real? I-I don’t…”
Crow holds him tighter, “It’s real. We’re real. Even if everything else turns out to be a dream, you and me are real.”
Rean’s hands are holding him so tightly it hurts, but Crow doesn’t care. He’d let Rean tear him apart if that’s what he needed.
He builds Rean up. Helps everyone he can, and over the next few months, Machias is able to play a game of chess with Jusis. Jusis is able to introduce himself to the group. Laura relapses once, and they collectively decide to make Fie her bathroom buddy, and the younger girl’s job is to keep Laura on track. Elliot can hold a conversation now, and Sara has been discharged but stops by for visiting hours when her AA meetings overlap. Emma’s delusions are improving, and she’s taken to writing imaginative stories to separate fact from fiction. Alisa is learning to be assertive and set boundaries. Gaius seems to have found the right combination of meds and therapy.
He and Rean share a bed at night. Sometimes they kiss. Sometimes they do a little more than that. He knows Rean is clinging to him for all the wrong reasons, knows it’s probably bad for both of them, but he can’t say no when Rean needs him. As sad as the situation is, it’s one of the best by far.
Crow doesn’t want to be discharged without Rean, but he thinks it might be good. They can be together but independent, and Crow will have saved up enough for a deposit on a place by the time Rean’s out. He never misses visiting hours.
All their friends move on. The newest group is nice, Rean says, but he feels so much older than them. And Musse, the latest edition to the crew, says wildly inappropriate things that always make him uncomfortable. Still, he does well, and eventually, he’s discharged, too. Crow has rounded up the crew, Class VII, they called themselves, and they have a little, non-alcoholic party.
Crow starts allowing himself to hope that maybe, just this once, they’ll get that happy ending.
But Rean goes off his meds without telling Crow. Crow starts to suspect but doesn’t accuse, not until Rean stops letting Crow touch him.
“You’re cutting again.”
“Don’t lie! It’s okay, Rean, we’ve gotten through this before. We can do it again. Just be honest with me!”
Rean starts crying and runs out of the apartment. Of course, Crow follows.
Rean’s so distraught he doesn’t see where he’s going, and Crow’s gut sinks when he sees Rean stepping toward the road. The headlights illuminate his silhouette, and God, even when he’s a fucking mess, he’s lovely.
Crow sprints, shoving Rean back toward the sidewalk and pain explodes in his side.
Finally, when he snaps back into awareness, he knows exactly who and where he is. The memories of his infinite other lives mingle with the brief one of Azure Siegfried, and something falls from his face.
He died. Died during their battle at the Infernal Castle, and the Black Workshop brought him back. He’s been stalking Rean for a few months now under their orders, and — what the fuck kind of name is Azure Siegfried, anyway? Crow sure as shit didn’t pick it. And he needs to have a talk with whoever chose his wardrobe. The coat’s kind of cool, but everything else… well, at least his abs look good. Damn, Rean is never gonna let him live this — shit, Rean’s gone berserk.
He doesn’t know if this timeline is the “right” one, where he and Rean will get their happy ending, but he has to try. This was the original world, and perhaps the way things ought to be, as fucked as they are.
He’s seen Rean suffer so many different ways, so many different times, and as he plummets down toward the Gral, he knows he’ll give his life again if he has to.
It’s just what he does.